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When objects tell a story

In conversation with artist Subodh Gupta
STIR interviews Subodh Gupta to probe his interest in using products in his artworks, and their associated symbolism in his practice.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jul 31, 2019

The one name that emerges immediately in the Indian contemporary art context when thinking about ‘utilising the ready-made’ is that of Subodh Gupta. Born in 1964 in Khagaul, Bihar, Gupta studied at the College of Art, Patna, before moving to Delhi. The primary specialisation for his art education was painting, but soon he explored a wide variety of disciplines and media, like performance and interactive art, video and photography, sculptures and installations. Gupta is best known for working with everyday objects. His iconic forms using stainless-steel utensils are one of the most recognisable works. His concerns as an artist are reflective of the universal issues of migration and equality and are a commentary on the socio-political development of our contemporary society.

Subodh Gupta with his monumental sculpture, ‘When Soak Becomes Spill’, installed in front of Victoria and Albert Museum, London| Subodh Gupta| Interview| STIR
Subodh Gupta with his monumental sculpture, When Soak Becomes Spill, installed in front of Victoria and Albert Museum, London Image Credit: Courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

Rahul Kumar (RK): You have used the ready-made (or products) to make art works and installations in the past. What has been the consideration in the choice of the product; is it the form and other physical attributes or the meanings and associations ascribed to the objects that play a role?

Subodh Gupta (SG): I do use objects, or ‘ready-mades’, to make works but I would not say that my work fits-in completely with the ready-made tradition as such. The first work for which I used such objects was titled 29 Mornings, made in 1996. I used actual wooden patras (low height sitting stools made with wooden planks) that I remembered from my childhood home. I made this work even before I knew of the long history of using ready-made objects in art. I would describe my using ‘objects’ the same way as a painter uses his paints. The objects, stools and utensils are mere material to me. What is important is that the object itself is transformed in the art making process. Of course, the original function of the object becomes a part of the meaning of the work, but it is crucial that it has a new interpretation and often even a new form.

In my recent work at the Bihar Museum of Art titled Yantra, the objects are part of a mandala and from afar one gets lost in the meditative pattern rather than instantly noticing that the elements making up the mandala are, in fact, functional household appliances. Here is another secret - many of the elements of Yantra are not even ready-made appliances, but rather replicas that were fabricated in my studio to resemble the original appliance! Similarly, when I make a cast bicycle or stools, it is not the ready-made object itself, but a point of reference. That brings in yet another layer of distance and disconnect from the ready-made.

  • Yantra, a steel structure, at the Bihar Museum| Subodh Gupta| Interview| STIR
    Yantra, a steel structure, at the Bihar Museum (appliances, stainless steel utensils, 670 x 670 x 305 cms, 2017) Image Credit: Courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio
  • Yantra (side view detail)| Subodh Gupta| Interview| STIR
    Yantra (side view detail) Image Credit: Courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio
  • Yantra installation in progress at Bihar Museum of Art| Subodh Gupta| Interview| STIR
    Yantra installation in progress at Bihar Museum of Art Image Credit: Courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

RK: In continuation, what is the intended viewer reaction basis the associations they may make of the ready-made objects?

SG: When you use an object that already has a determined function, history and association for the viewer, that set of connections and connotations will add to the meaning of the work. In Yantra for instance, these pre-existing associations play a particularly important role, as the work is trying to set up a contrast between the every-day, industrial objects and the cosmic, meditative form that they have become a part of. However, ultimately when I make an artwork, I always hope to take the viewer past those prescribed notions about an object. I see art-making as a sort of alchemical practice, so if I have not managed to transform or elevate the objects from its original function in my work, then I have failed.

School, 45 brass cast stools, stainless steel utensils, 560 × 545cms, 2008| Subodh Gupta| Interview| STIR
School, 45 brass cast stools, stainless steel utensils, 560 × 545cms, 2008 Image Credit: Courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

RK: Given that often these works are large-scale, how do you approach the concept of space in contrast to the work? Do you make works, and then develop options to place/display them, or more often is it the vice-versa – create works in reaction to a specific space? How important is the site-specificity and the associated contexts of space in your large-scale sculptures?

SG: This process really varies from project to project and I enjoy the different challenges that arise when making large public sculptures. I have done many projects where I develop the whole idea for the work after seeing the site, but often I have a few pre-existing ideas of works that I am interested in making and certain concepts become particularly relevant to the site that I am presented with. Referencing Yantra again, I did have a general sketch and visualisation of the artwork almost a year before I got down to making it. However, I had no idea where and how realistically the work would fit. When I had the opportunity to make something for the Bihar Museum, I knew almost immediately that it was the perfect place for this work. The work fits very well in the site, not just in terms of scale, but in terms of the relationship that Bihar has with modernism and development on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. The best works arise when the themes that are being tackled in the artwork also fit-in well with the history and politics of the site where the artwork is installed.

(The article was first published in Issue #20 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)

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